By Laura Keil
If capital can be anywhere, why would capital be in your community?
If you didn’t know Greg Halseth, you might think he was asking a mean rhetorical question. But Halseth is sincere about posing big questions to small communities. He has dedicated his career at the University of Northern BC to studying the dynamics that cause small and remote places to change and grow.
Halseth, a Professor in the Geography Program at UNBC, is also the Canada Research Chair in Rural and Small Town Studies and Director of UNBC’s Community Development Institute. His research examines rural and small town development, and strategies for coping with social and economic change, all with a focus upon northern B.C.’s resource-based towns.
He and Marleen Morris, who is Associate Director at the Community Development Institute, were in McBride and Valemount last week to discuss the challenges and opportunities in the Robson Valley.
For Halseth, the roadmap is clear: we need to consider our “assets and aspirations.”
In the Robson Valley, the proximity to the highway and to Mt. Robson Provincial Park and Jasper National Park would be assets, for instance.
“It’s really about thinking about our assets – the things that we most value that keep us here. Then thinking about the future we want to forge for our community.”
He says one thing small places have to realize is that it’s a global economy – and it’s a fast economy. One day one thing sells, the next day something doesn’t. He gives the example of natural gas, and how just a few years ago the industry was gearing down. Now it’s in a boom period.
Tapping into the global economy, of course, is easier said than done. But like never before, he says companies are able to locate production facilities and staff all over the world – even in the creation of a single product like a laptop computer.
“Today capital can invest anywhere. Companies are around the world.”
But with fewer government services to rural areas, and trade agreements that make it difficult to favour domestic business, Halseth observes that communities are on their own more than ever before.
Halseth and Morris gave several examples of communities that have successfully reinvented themselves. Terrace BC used to have three mills operating. Now they’re lucky if one mill is going full-time.
But 20 years ago the community reflected on its assets and realized it was positioned as the crossroad of north-west BC. Bigger services and stores could be centralized in Terrace and serve outlying communities less than an hour away. They started working on this diversification before things got really bad.
“Everyone started working together to marshall their resources,” Marleen said of Terrace.
Halseth cautioned that every asset can be many things, depending on what your community aspires to be.
Another example was Port Clements on Haida Gwaii. Their school was about to close. A community member realized that the community’s services were dispersed around town and energy inefficient. They were costing the community a fortune to heat and maintain. The community decided to build a new multi-purpose centre that was energy efficient and included a new school. Now the school district was not paying exorbitant amounts in heat; the main expense was the teacher who they had to pay for anyway.
Halseth and Marleen met with the Village Councils and community members throughout the day. If you missed the presentation, Halseth has compiled many of these anecdotes into his latest book “Investing in Place: Economic Renewal in Northern British Columbia.”